Japan hoop legend Kohama dead at 84

by

Staff Writer

Mototaka Kohama, affectionately known as the “Godfather of Japanese basketball,” died on Thursday. He was 84.

Kohama passed away from pneumonia at a Tokyo hospital. He had been battling cancer.

The coaching legend’s lifelong passion for the game inspired generations of players and coaches in Japan. Blessed with an infectious spirit and a never-ending quest for knowledge, he remained actively interested in the game until the end of his life.

Kohama’s funeral is scheduled for Saturday. He is survived by his wife, Yoko.

The B. League is planning a moment of silence before Sunday’s All-Star Game to honor Kohama. A patch on players’ uniforms is also a possibility for upcoming B. League games as a tribute to the coaching great, according to a basketball insider.

Born on Oct. 17, 1932, the Tokyo native is recognized throughout the nation for his unconventional path to success. As a young man, Kohama left Japan in 1958 and traveled to the University of Kentucky, pursuing studies that expanded his global vision and leadership acumen. (He honed his coaching skills at the high school and collegiate levels in the 1960s and ’70s.)

Two decades later, Kohama returned to Kentucky for a lengthy stay, spending a year there to observe in what made the Wildcats a perennial powerhouse program. Besides having highly recruited players, Kohama saw what the Kentucky coaching staff did day after day to lead the team to great success. (His arrival in ’79 came a year after Kentucky had won a national championship.)

That experienced proved fruitful for Kohama and Japan hoops. From 1982-2002, he guided the Isuzu Giga Cats in the JBL. The now-defunct team captured seven league titles and won the Emperor’s Cup five times in that span. (Kohama later led the revamped Giga Cats, after Isuzu dropped sponsorship, as a club team until 2005.)

Among Kohama’s prominent proteges are current head coaches Makoto Hasegawa of the Akita Northern Happinets and Kenichi “Mr. Basketball” Sako of the Hiroshima Dragonflies, former backcourt stars who were pushed and challenged by their demanding boss.

In a January 2014 interview, Sako reflected on what it was like playing for Kohama.

“I felt like I was trapped in a bird’s cage (under Kohama),” Sako was quoted as saying, according to this newspaper. “But through playing for him, I got to know my roles and jobs on the team and that’s a very important thing in basketball.”

Above all, Kohama’s Kentucky connections paved the way for a lifelong friendship with Dwane Casey, the future NBA head coach. They met in Lexington, the university town, in 1979.

“There is not enough time to express in an email my feelings for Coach. He was like a family member to me,” the Toronto Raptors bench boss told The Japan Times. “I had taken him to my small hometown in Kentucky to meet my grandparents and family back in 1979.

“When we first met I was a young player at the University of Kentucky.

“He didn’t speak great English at that time and I surely couldn’t speak Japanese. But from the start there was a chemistry/connection that we had. He loved Nat King Cole songs. He knew the words, I would always try to find genuine Japanese restaurants for him in Lexington.

“We would sit and diagram plays until wee hours in the a.m. He would work with me on my jump shot as a player before I got into coaching.

“After he brought the Japan national team to the University of Kentucky where he assisted Coach Joe Hall to prepare the team for the World Games. After that experience in the late ’70s he would invite me over to Japan to work with different teams along with Pete Newell and many other coaches who loved and respected Coach Kohama.

“When I got married I spent my honeymoon there in Japan and had dinner with him. So many special memories.”

This reporter dined with Kohama and Casey and two of their close friends who have long-standing ties to Japan basketball last August. It was a remarkable evening, where basketball tales going back to Kohama’s teenage years were interspersed with his optimistic thoughts that the current generation of Japanese basketball players will grow and get better in global competition.

His ability to recall precise details of games and the characteristics of his player and opposing teams across the decades was truly impressive.

In short, Kohama never stopped paying attention.

He maintained wide-ranging views on the movers and shakers within the Japan Basketball Association and players and coaches who now comprise key positions within the B. League’s pecking order.

Casey, in his sixth season at the helm in Toronto, saw how Kohama valued friendships as one of life’s great treasures.

“That is why I made a special trip to Japan this past summer to see him, especially knowing his battle he was having with cancer,” Casey said. “We spent two beautiful days together.”

That visit of course, included a basketball-related activity.

Kohama never stopped teaching, never stopped giving back to the game.

On the second day of Casey’s August visit, Kohama participated in a coaches clinic at Hakuoh University in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture, where around 100 coaches representing all levels around the country were present, passing along pointers and advice and working with the university’s women’s players to demonstrate various drills.

“I will miss his friendship and mentorship,” Casey, who coached in the JBL with Kohama in the late 1980s and early ’90s, said of his beloved mentor. “My heartfelt condolences go to Mrs. Kohama, who was a great source of strength for him for many years. Goodbye my friend. You will always be in my heart.”

Kohama and Casey further solidified their friendship working together to lead the Japan men’s team at the 1998 FIBA World Championship in Greece, with Kohama at the helm. It was Japan’s first appearance at worlds in 31 years and marked an important return for the nation in top international competition.

In an interview last year, Casey summed up what many others inside and outside Japan have said about Kohama for decades: “He is one of the old pioneers with Japan’s modern-day basketball. . . . A lot of the modern-day growth and success started with Kohama-san.”

Zeljko Pavlicevic, a former Japan national team coach (2003-06) and pro mentor in the bj-league and NBL before the formation of the B. League for the current season, mourned Kohama’s passing.

“Kohama was a legend of Japanese basketball,” Pavlicevic told The Japan Times. “I personally met him a couple of times and understandably the topic was basketball, but more in depth it was the development of Japanese basketball. His support for my coaching of the national team was tremendous because he appreciated what I was doing and considered it good for basketball’s quality and popularity in Japan.

“Unfortunately life’s unavoidable nature took from us another great man and coach,” added the Croatian, who rose to prominence in coaching circles by winning two Euroleague titles before coming to Japan.

After learning of Kohama’s death, former NBA forward Kenny “Sky” Walker, who played under him at Isuzu, posted a statement on Facebook.

“R.I.P. It was great playing for you. Coach Kohama was a great coach but even a better person,” Walker wrote.

When the Northern Happinets held their first regular-season home game in October 2010 as a new bj-league team, Kohama, a team adviser, was treated as a special guest, and received warm greetings from the gathered crowd.

It was an appropriate gesture, honoring the Godfather of Japanese basketball.